publishing writing

Editors in the wild – a public service announcement

I’ve seen some confusion around the traps of late about the different roles covered by the tag ‘editor’, so I thought it’d be useful to give y’all a breakdown on what editors are and what they do in the book publishing business.

KNOW YOUR EDITOR. YOUR LIFE MAY DEPEND ON IT! You will not be able to see his eyes because of Tea-Shades, but his knuckles will be white from inner tension and his pants will be crusted with semen from constantly jacking off when he can’t find a rape victim. He will stagger and babble when questioned. He will not respect your badge. The Editor fears nothing. He will attack, for no reason, with every weapon at his command – including yours. BEWARE. Any officer apprehending a suspected editor should use all necessary force immediately. One stitch in time (on him) will usually save nine on you. Good luck.

– Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Random House’s YA Department

Wait, that’s not right. Let me start again.

This is actually a tricky business, because different companies, industries and countries have different names for the same role, or the same name for different roles. But I’m just gonna roll with what I know.


This is a person who reads proofs, just like it says on the tin – ‘proofs’ being the laid-out pages from the typesetter that then get printed as the final book. A proofreader’s job is to go through proofs and mark up any typographical or layout errors they find so that the typesetter can correct them and then send the pages to print. And that’s it. They don’t make changes themselves, they don’t suggest improvements, they don’t alter the text in any way – it’s all about pointing out errors that someone else can then fix. This is why proofreaders provide the cheapest editing service, but also the one that’s least useful for most writers, because all you’re catching are basic errors and you still need to clean them up yourself.

Copy editor

This is what folks often muddle up with proofreaders – the people who get into a piece of writing and fix up any problems. Copy editors look for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, as well as oddball formatting things like a paragraph being underlined for no reason, and they correct those things before the MS is typeset or laid out. Depending on the project, they might also apply styles and format text, but then again they might not. The key thing about copy editors is that they work on a sentence level, fixing up technical problems, but without looking at the text as a whole; they don’t care if the collective makes sense or is worth reading, just whether the individual bits work on their own.

Substantive/development/content/critical/I’ve-probably-missed-one editor

Or, as they’re often called, ‘editors’. This is the big umbrella of folks who look at the entire manuscript, tell you what’s wrong with it and (depending on the agreement) fix/change it as needed to make it the best book it can be. In non-fiction, development might mean bringing the MS in line with a specific structure, re-ordering material, updating details and (possibly) fact checking. In fiction, it can mean changing plots and characters, tightening language, requesting additional content from the author and more. Substantive editing is the Big Fun Exciting Editing, at least as far as I’m concerned, but it’s also the one that requires a strong relationship with the author, a shared vision and an assumption of trust. Otherwise you get your author copies when the book’s published to find your teenage protagonist has been replaced with Starscream.

Technical editor

Technical editors are kind of like substantive editors, but they’re attached more to the production/design/layout end of things than the writing end. Fact checking and content editing is probably a concern, but so is consistently styling of headings, layouts, images, fonts, page breaks and other structural features. If you’re writing or contributing to a highly designed book, like a technical manual or textbook, then a technical editor is probably going to make sure all your work fits that design; if you’re writing fiction, then there isn’t the same need.

Compiling/consulting editor

If you ever pick up an anthology and it says ‘edited by BLAH DE BLAH’, then that person is a compiling editor, a role that (perversely) doesn’t really involve any editing at all. A compiling editor who assembles material probably doesn’t actively edit any of it, and if they do it’s usually only the lightest of edits done in consultation with the author. What a compiling editor provides is a consistent vision for what the book/project is and what pieces of text should be in there, usually then going to individual authors and asking them to contribute. That’s no small job. And it gets your name on the book cover, which is pretty sweet.

Series/line editor

‘Vision’ is also the job of the series editor, a job mostly found in work-for-hire or media-based properties. Akin to the showrunner of a TV show, a line editor makes sure that the material submitted by authors fits the vision for the property, both right now and as part of future plans and developments. If it doesn’t, the editor may need to rewrite it themselves or push it out to another writer for revision. When the series editor has a light touch and gives writers room, you can get great, unique stories. When they’re hamfisted commanders of the IP who view writers as interchangeable word engines, you get New 52 DC comics OOH SICK BURN

They made Captain Carrot grim and gritty WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE

Permissions editor

If a book has copyrighted material in it that wasn’t created by the author – quotes, song lyrics, images – then the publisher needs to get permission from the rights holder to use it, usually paying for it. A novel might have only a couple of such items (or none at all), while a textbook could have like a thousand. Sourcing and negotiating for that material is the job of the permissions editor. It’s a job that involves working with image libraries and other publishers, tracking down rights holders, grappling with legislation and a bunch of other tasks. I wouldn’t do it for quids.

Project editor

If your contact in a publishing house is called a project editor, that means they’re working on 5-10 other books at the same time as yours. Project editors are in-house editors who juggle a set of books for the company, hiring freelancers to do the copy or content editing while they give what oversight they have time to provide, all the while working with the publishing and production department. It’s a big workload and one that requires a lot of organisational skills, while still demanding a fair bit of editorial input and direction. So be patient if they don’t answer your emails right away.

Commissioning/acquisitions editor

The last one really isn’t an editor at all, for the most part; this is another word for ‘publisher’, used mainly to distinguish between the person and the company as a whole. Commissioning editors are the ones who choose the books that get published, whether by going out and commissioning work to be written or deciding to acquire already-written texts for their house. They’re the ones who build relationships with writers, the ones you submit your work to, the first ones to read it and decide whether it’s good or not; everyone else listed above follows after them on the road to getting a book in print. This is what I do for a living, although rather than work with boring old fiction I work in the sexy, sexy world of commissioning high school maths textbooks hey wait come back I wasn’t done.

Got all that? Well, good, but don’t rely on it too much; different places break roles down in different ways. There’s a lot of crossover between these jobs, especially once you get inside a publishing company. A commissioning editor probably also acts as a substantive editor; a compiling editor might also handle permissions; the line editors I’ve worked with also did a bunch of copy editing on my first drafts. Pretty much the only thing consistent across the board is proofreading.

Let’s not even get started on how there are totally different roles and breakdowns of duties in periodical/newspaper/magazine editing, online editing or other specialist forms of print media. And film and TV editing is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AGAIN. Fuck it, let’s all go get drunk.

The key thing to take away is this: saying ‘I need an editor’ isn’t enough. Not when looking for someone to work on your book, not when thinking about what needs to be done to your book, not when talking to whoever’s changing your work to fit their remit. If you’re self-publishing, work out exactly what kind of service you want before you hire someone, or you may end up paying a tonne of money for work you didn’t want or need. If your book is being handled by a publisher, work out who’s doing what to your work so you know who to talk to and how to supply the direction and feedback they need, rather than wasting time/effort with the wrong person or at the wrong stage of the process.

And if you end up working for me, please don’t submit your diagrams in longhand. Redoing that stuff digitally eats up my whole freaking week.

2 replies on “Editors in the wild – a public service announcement”

Hmm, I remember a while ago I asked you for some editing discussion, so I should probably stump up and comment.

Thanks for the above. I know that I was at least a little hazy on the distinction between line editing and development editing. I mean, I *thought* I knew, but most of what I thought I knew was based on following gaming discussion, which I suspected to be fraught with definitional ghettoes not found in the wider publishing industry.

So maybe to push the subject on a bit, what’s your editing advice or process for taking a manuscript from an as-good-as-the-author-can-make-it draft through to publication [1]? (Assume self-publishing, since I guess the process for a contracted author is dependent on the publisher)

[1] Asking for a friend [2]

[2] The friend is me, in the future.

‘Line editing’ is a particularly squishy term. I’ve seen it used as an equivalent to development editing – i.e. an editor who goes through the text line-by-line. It varies from house to house and niche to niche.

As for advice, mine would be to:

a) Send the MS out to smart friends and peers who can pick what works and what doesn’t. Take their opinions seriously and do what’s necessary to make the story, characters and writing work.

b) Then hire an independent copy editor – someone who can pay attention to matters of voice and pick out contradictions but not make major changes. Recent graduates are a good option; they have skills and are looking for a chance to put them to work, so they’ll probably meet you halfway on price.

This is what I did for ‘The Obituarist’, and I think that worked pretty well.

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